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How to get off the gerbil wheel: The Otterbox story

If you own a business, you’re probably familiar with the feeling of being stuck on a gerbil wheel. It’s that perpetual state of expending all your energy just to keep your business running without ever making forward progress. It’s a feeling all business owners face at some point, and unfortunately most get stuck there—some forever (or until they burn out or quit), and others until they make proactive steps to stop the cycle. EMyth Client and OtterBox Owner Curt Richardson used to be one of those business owners.

Today, OtterBox is a global brand, known as a market leader in tech protection products, and Curt Richardson frequently shares his entrepreneurial story through articles and podcasts. But there was a moment when he almost quit, when the ceaseless spin of the wheel became too much to bear. Instead of quitting, Curt took the step he knew he needed to escape the cycle and avoid folding his business. 

A successful beginning

Since his first experience in a machine shop in high school, Curt knew that was how he wanted to spend his life: creating and building. In 1995, after years developing and tooling designs for a waterproof box—something meant to protect small personal items—Curt created a product that filled a gap in the market at the time: the first prototype for a waterproof cell phone case. With that design, Curt launched OtterBox out of his machine shop.

I remember early days, when I was living the dream. I got the machine shop that I’d always wanted, and I remember standing there thinking, ‘I've arrived.’ But I also remember what happened next … the machine shop turned into a nightmare. It turned into a job. It was no longer a dream—it was a job, and I was working tons of hours and not making any money.

Curt Richardson, Owner of OtterBox

Growing pains

As his company became successful, Curt’s role changed from visionary designer and engineer to manager and firefighter. His day-to-day focus became about doing whatever needed to be done to keep the business running, doing the same thing over and over. Like many business owners, Curt felt that if he could only work faster and harder, he’d be more successful. But eventually, he just couldn’t keep up. And he didn’t want or know how to stop in order to manage other people, which was the key to getting out of that cycle of overwhelm. 

I was always in the tyranny of the urgent. I think most entrepreneurs get their value from the fire of the day. Right? ‘Wow, I did a great job today. I put out all these fires, I solved all these problems.’ They never really know that they’re the problem. [I thought] I needed to go do it, do it, do it—and the reality is, I needed to help other people do it. As the business grows you can't do it all yourself … I needed to help others be leaders and managers.

Curt Richardson, Owner of Otterbox

Curt could recognize some of the obstacles in front of him: the need to learn how to lead, the need for structure and processes. But his biggest obstacle was that he didn't know what he didn't know. He knew he couldn’t keep working in the same way, but he didn’t know what to change or how to change it.

emyth-business-coaching-systems-guide-systemization

Getting support to develop his business

Then Curt read The E-Myth Revisited. “I took it with me going to China, and I read it on the way over, and from cover to cover again coming back,” he told us. After reading the now famous story of Sarah and her bakery, Curt could finally see what was happening in his business from the outside. Sarah’s issues as a leader—the overwhelm, the people problems, the difficulty getting a break—reflected his issues. When he saw Sarah’s steps to systematize her business, he realized that something different was possible. “I knew I needed help,” Curt recalls, “In San Francisco, I got off the plane and called EMyth.”

Curt came in understanding that he needed to know something, he just didn't know what. He wanted people to follow, but wasn't able to truly lead them in the way he wanted to to make the business more successful. [And] he really got that the business needed systems. He felt that he didn't know how to lead and manage, but he didn't realize that they could be systems. That they could actually be something he could learn that easily.

Donna_Uzelac_EMyth_business_coachingDonna Uzelac, EMyth-Certified Business Coach

Systemization

Curt started the work of building the systems his people needed so he could stop fighting fires every day. But it took time and a mindset shift.

In the beginning, I wanted to avoid the financial side of the business. I wanted to avoid the hiring process, I wanted to avoid systems and processes. I didn't even understand what they were, but I was very much systems avoidant. As a small business owner, when you’re just getting it done every day, you're not thinking, 'How do I set this up so I'm not right back here tomorrow?' And that's really what systems and processes do.

Curt Richardson, Owner of Otterbox

Through his work with his coach, Curt documented his approach and built his personal process into systems that his team could run. His goal was to implement the structure that eliminated the need for his employees to “recreate” their jobs every day so that they could come in knowing exactly they needed to do and what was expected of them.

People don't know what they're supposed to do every day. They just follow the boss's example—and he's usually not the best example.

Curt Richardson, Owner of OtterBox

Creating the systems foundation for his business stopped the cycle of firefighting. Curt learned how to communicate his vision and build the structure around it so that his team could grow and his company could scale, all while doing things the OtterBox way. 

Watch Curt's story below:

 

If you’d like to do the same for your business, download our free Systems Guide, or reach out to speak with a coach.

Kirstin Fulton

Written by Kirstin Fulton

Kirstin Fulton is a Content Creator for EMyth, where she partners with every department to develop content that inspires and educates business owners on their entrepreneurial journey. Her experience lies in writing and producing digital and print media for various industries, developing corporate events, and building immersive curriculum for both academic and business environments. She’s passionate about serving the EMyth community—our clients, Coaches, and colleagues—through writing that brings clarity, guidance and enthusiasm to the everyday.

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